By A Staff Writer
The Last Englishmen (Penguin Random House India) by Deborah Baker is a gripping and exhilarating journey through the Indian subcontinent at the end of the
W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender were the cutting-edge English poets of their generation, influential inter-war figures on the cusp of culture and polit
ics. By a curious quirk of history, both their older brothers were mountain explorers – John Bicknell Auden was a pioneer
ing geologist of the Himalayas, while Michael Spender was the first to
draw a detailed map of the north face of the Everest. While their younger brothers achieved literary fame, John Auden and Michael Spender vied to be included in the expedition that would deliver an Englishman to the summit of Everest, a quest that became a metaphor for
Britain to maintain power over India. To this rivalry was added another: both
men fell in love with the same vivacious woman, the London painter Nancy Sharp. Her choice would determine where each man’s wartime fate and loyalties would lie, with England and its unraveling empire, or elsewhere.
Set in Calcutta, London, in the glacier-locked wilds of the Karakoram, and on Mount Everest itself, The Last Englishmen is also the story of a generation. The cast of characters in Deborah Baker’s exhilarating drama includes Indian and English writers and artists, explorers and Communist spies, imperial ‘Die Hards’ and Indian nationalists, political chancers and police informers. Key among them is a highborn Bengali poet named Sudhindranath Datta, a melancholy soul torn like others of his generation between a hatred of the British empire and a deep love of European literature, and whose way of life would be upended by the arrival of the Second World War on his Calcutta doorstep. Dense with romance and intrigue, and of startlin
g relevance to the cross-cultural debates and great power games of our own day, The Last Englishmen is an engrossing and masterful story that traces the end of empire and the stirring of a new world order.
Meru Gokhale, Editor-in-Chief, Literary Publishing, Penguin Random House India, has described the book in glowing terms. “The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker is no ordinary work of historical non-fiction. With the galloping pace of a thriller, the meticulous research of a scholarly essay
, the lyrical prose of a literary novel, and the sly humour of a satire, this is a genre-defying book that we couldn’t be prouder to publish.”
The Economist said: “By focusing on less exalted characters, often of a literary bent, Ms Baker produces a highly readable and intimate view of an unusual time and place.”
The Spectator said that in The Last Englishmen, Deborah Baker has written an exuberant, scene-changing, shapeshifting group biography.
Author and critic Pankaj Mishra said that Deborah Baker combines a novelistic alertness to the inner life with an anthropologist’s understanding of multiple cultures and a historian’s eye for major events. “The result, yet again, is a continuously absorbing and stimulating book, which enlarges the cultural and political history of the mid-20th century even as it grippingly relates the adventures of a few men and women,” said Mishra.
Noted historian John Keay termed the book brilliant. Keay said: “What really distinguishes the book is its brilliant characterisations and its structural agility […] Non-fiction ought always to be this engaging.”
The Author: Deborah Baker is the author of In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1994, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India and The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2011. She lives in the USA and India.